After the prayer of Hannah, the rest of 1 Samuel 2 (vv. 12–36) continues the story of the conflict of the two seeds, and it extends and expands upon Hannah’s prophecy of coming judgment. We are given three narratives: the first relates the open manifestation of the evil: the priesthood of Eli’s sons Hophni and Phinehas, who had been introduced earlier in 1:3. The second shows the failure of Eli in all three of his covenantal positions: as father, judge, and high priest. These two narratives demonstrate the point made earlier: that the “adversaries of the Lord” (2:10) whom Hannah denounced were in fact the priests of Israel themselves. The third narrative relates God’s clear condemnation of the evil, which places the blame squarely upon this corrupt priesthood.
Sons of Belial
The first narrative exposes the evil of Eli’s sons. We are told the names of Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, in several places (1:3; 2:34; 4:4, 11, 17), but they are not named at the start of this particular narrative. We are just told of “the sons of Eli.” This implicates the entire priesthood, as all priests were hierarchically “sons” of the high priest, and literally sons of Aaron (as was Eli—2:27). Nevertheless, it is assumed that Hophni and Phinehas are particularly in view, only secondarily representative of the priesthood.
These sons are called “worthless men.” The Hebrew (translated as a proper name by the KJV) is “Sons of Belial.” We have already encountered this phrase in 1:16 when Hannah answers Eli: “Do not regard your servant as a daughter of Belial.” The literal meaning, while difficult, is probably something like “daughter of worthlessness,” or perhaps “daughter of vanity”; thus it should be “sons” of the same here. Seeing the priesthood had become corrupt, we can judge this to be the kind of mass faithlessness described in Deuteronomy 13, where “sons of Belial” are false prophets leading whole segments of society astray. We will encounter that segment of society in later places in this book. The worthless men of Deuteronomy 13:13–14 are noted for having “drawn away” the people. The issue is thus social apostasy (and the Septuagint is clear: apestesan). This is clearly also the condemnation of the priests in 2:12: they did not know the Lord. The very people who were supposed to represent the people before the Lord and draw near to Him on their behalf did not even know Him. In other words, they were apostates. They were, in fact, worse: they actually honored themselves above God by assuming for themselves the choice pieces of meat (see 2:29). Thus they had indeed played the part of false prophets as in Deuteronomy 13.
There is a theme in Scripture of pairs of sons who depart from the Lord, and invite judgment. This occurred in Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, who offered “strange fire” on the altar of the Lord and were executed by God (Lev. 10:1–3). It recurs again here with Hophni and Phinehas, who will be executed as well. It will appear again in chapter eight with Samuel’s own sons, Joel and Abiah, who are Levites as well but also corrupt judges, taking bribes and perverting justice. Their departure from the Lord’s ways will precipitate despair in leadership and thus the people’s request for a king like the pagan nations.
The issue involved here is the biblical principle of two witnesses (Deut. 17:6; 19:15; Matt. 18:16; 2 Cor. 2:31; 1 Tim. 5:19; Heb. 10:28). This was not only judicial law, but was enshrined in Israel’s liturgy: the Ten Commandments were written on the “two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone” (Ex. 31:18; 34:1–4), there were two onyx stones engraved with the names of the children of Israel and borne one each on the shoulders of the high priest (Ex. 28:9–11), twin pillars in the temple of Solomon (1 Kings 7:18–21), as well as the twin cherubim facing each other over the ark of the covenant (Ex. 25:18–22). When two people are exposed together in corruption, they become their own witnesses against each other and themselves. Likewise, two witnesses with a divine pronouncement ensure the judgment against the corrupt. This dual proclamation appears in this chapter in the tandem of Hannah and then the man of God in 2:27.
In the New Testament, we have Jesus Christ witnessed as the truth by at least two (John 5:31–36; 8:12–18), and ministered to by Moses and Elijah at the transfiguration (Matt. 17:3; Mark 9:4; Luke 9:30). While He walked the earth He sent out his disciples as witnesses in twos (Mark 6:7; Luke 10:1). We even see a reversal of the “two corrupt sons” motif in the leadership of the two sons of Zebedee, James and John, whom Jesus nicknames “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17), as well as, perhaps, the faithful brothers Simon and Andrew, whose brotherhood is attested in all four Gospels (Matt. 4:18; Mark 1:16; Luke 6:14; John 1:40). The final dual witness against unbelieving Israel comes with the “two witnesses” of Revelation 11:3ff.
The Sin of the Priests
As mentioned previously, the priests’ sin lay in the fact that they were honoring themselves above God in perverting the sacrifices (1 Sam. 2:13–17). In particular, the priests were manipulating the meat sacrifices in such a way as to select the choicest portions for themselves to eat. The rules for this endeavor were clearly outlined in Leviticus 7. Those regulations made clear that the priests’ portion of sacrificed meat was to be the breast and the shoulder (Lev. 7:28–36). The cooks among us will attest that these are very tough pieces of meat that need to be cooked low and slow (for hours) before they are tender and delicious (think Texas brisket and Carolina pulled pork—that’s breast and shoulder, respectively). Even today these pieces of meat are among the cheapest cuts. In short, God provided for the sustenance of the priests, but He didn’t give them the filet mignon. They were provided for, but they ate humbly.
Hophni and Phinehas were apparently not content with God’s arrangement—that is, God’s law. They devised two innovations in these sacrifices. First, instead of resting content with breast and shoulder, they directed their servants to select portions of meat “randomly” from the pot using a fleshhook. There is little doubt they were expecting the servants to draw out the best portions of meat under the guise of acting randomly. Tenderloin and Porterhouse here we come.
Second, the priests began demanding sections of raw meat be given them even before the Lord’s portion (the fat and kidney fat) was offered on the fire. This was an even more egregious offense. The Levitical laws specifically and repeatedly designate the fat to be burnt in the fire for the Lord only. The priests were, therefore, not only violating God’s commands for their designated portion, but they were also stealing God’s portions from Him.
This open violation of God’s law was opposed by some who brought the sacrifices. The text makes clear that some would protest. This shows that many of the people were more faithful to God than the priesthood that was representing them. But the priesthood had authority and would have its way. It even resorted to threats of force in order to maintain its ungodly custom.
These infractions of eating sacrificed meat may seem to us almost like a trivial matter. But the text makes clear that this sin was very great (1 Sam. 2:17). The priests were perverting part of what God designed as central to society: the worship of God. The moment you begin disregarding and redesigning the worship of God and the means by which to approach Him, that moment you have set yourself up in His place. Hophni and Phinehas should have been leading the nation in faithfulness. Instead, they were sending a message to the whole nation that God need not be taken too seriously. For this fundamental idolatry of self-worship and self-indulgent irreverence, and certainly for demoralizing the people, these priests were about to pay a tremendous price.
The fleshhook of three teeth (2:13) is a curious detail. Fleshhooks were a basic tool of the priests (Ex. 27:3) used for handling meat sacrifices. The Hebrew word is mazleg and it comes from a root meaning “draw up.” God commanded these to be made of bronze (Ex. 27:3); David later provided Solomon gold for them (1 Chron. 28:17), but Solomon had them made of bronze anyway (2 Chron. 4:16). Only here in 1 Samuel 2:13 are we told this utensil had “three teeth.” Whether intentional or not, it is a beautiful image of our Savior, the ultimate flesh-sacrifice, thrice-nailed to the cross and “lifted up” (John 12:32) to draw all men to Him.
A final detail of the sins of Eli’s sons appears in verse 22: they lay with the women who were serving at the entrance to the tent of meeting. It seems they were acting more like they ran a pagan temple and were hosting temple prostitutes. We should not, of course, take this too lightly, especially since we learn that at least one of the sons, Phinehas, was married (1 Sam. 4:19) and was thus committing adultery. This infraction could carry the death penalty under Old Testament law. But this detail emerges briefly and is mentioned almost just in passing later in the narrative. Whereas on the other hand, God takes several verses to describe the perversion of the sacrifices and worship. Thus it seems that God considered the perversion of worship to be a much more weighty sin than these sexual escapades. While we today are often more outspoken about sexual sins (sometimes, it seems, to the near exclusion of anything else), God seems to give greater attention to false worship and idolatry in society.
In verses 22–25 we learn that Eli knew everything evil that his sons were doing, and yet he did virtually nothing to stop it. The most we get from him is a mere verbal chide. This, we are told, the sons ignored. It was obviously not enough. Eli failed.
What is most disheartening about this narrative is that Eli was actually in a position to stop them. In fact, he was in multiple positions to stop them, and yet failed in all of them. Eli held every covenantal position of authority over these wicked sons that there is, and yet failed. When self-government fails (which it obviously had with Hophni and Phinehas), the first line of governmental authority is the family. As their father, Eli should have stopped them long before they got to this point. But as a father of rebellious and riotous sons, he should have been the first to turn over these incorrigible sons to the civil authorities for punishment (Ex. 21:17; Deut. 21:18–21). Yet Eli did nothing but complain against them.
The second line of governmental authority is the ecclesiastical establishment. As high priest, Eli should have cleaned house long ago including his wicked sons. Yet again, he did nothing here. Judgment begins at the house of God, yet Eli let the sin fester and spread, all the while knowing that sins against God Himself leave the sinner in a very precarious state (2:25).
Finally, as the judge in the land, the one sitting upon a throne (1 Sam. 1:9), Eli should have brought a civil suit against these wicked blasphemers and adulterers. Yet again, he did nothing in this capacity.
In short, Eli was a failure as a father, as a priest, and as a civil ruler. He had failed as a head of all three of God’s covenantal institutions: family, church, and state. As such, he becomes the image of all the faithlessness in Israel across the board. He becomes a type of the seed of the serpent. As such, we will see him die by having his head crushed (1 Sam. 4:18), a repeated theme in this book (1 Sam. 17:49–51; 31:8–9).
Given the wickedness of the priesthood and the failures of Eli, it is no surprise to find a prophet—man of God (2:27)—visiting this seed of the serpent with an overt and pointed message of judgment (2:27–36). What Hannah had prophesied in generalities (2:1–11), this man will make specific to the house of Eli.
Since Eli was a covenantal head, God holds him responsible for the sins of his sons who served under his leadership. This message is clear: Why then do you scorn my sacrifices and my offerings that I commanded for my dwelling, and honor your sons above me by fattening yourselves on the choicest parts of every offering of my people Israel? Eli was thus indicted by God for false worship and idolatry. Just as his sons had set themselves up in the place of God, so God holds Eli, too, accountable for honoring those sons above God.
The man of God then prophesies death by sword for all of Eli’s descendants. This would not come to pass until 1 Samuel 22:6–23, and then not without irony it is carried out by the new wicked ruler, Saul. In the meantime, however, the man of God prophesies a sign that the fuller slaughter shall be carried out: Eli’s two sons Hophni and Phinehas would both be killed in battle on the same day. This will come to pass almost immediately, as we shall see in chapter 4.
The Faithful Priest
The Innocence of Samuel
We said at the outset that the contrast between the two seeds was visible here. While the sons of Eli are set forth as “sons of Belial” or “sons of worthlessness,” Samuel is portrayed as being groomed on the side as the future priest and judge after these others are judged and out of the way. The text presents him as ministering before the LORD and clothed with a linen ephod. This is the work and dress of a priest. Yet the young Samuel is disconnected from all of sin and perversion in which the rest of the priests have engaged. The vignette here, then, is of Samuel’s faithfulness and innocence in the midst of corruption. He is the seed of promise. He is the faithful remnant.
It is clear that the boy’s mother Hannah understands who and what he will be. She remembers her vow, her prophecy, and the God to whom she owed these things. In faithful expectation of what was to come, she brought the child appropriate clothing every year, minding the fact that he was a growing boy. But this was not ordinary clothing. The little robe was more than mere clothing. The word for robe is meiyl, and it refers to a special robe of office, specifically the robe worn by the high priest (Ex. 28:4; Lev. 8:7). It also describes the robe worn by men of rank, such as Jonathan (1 Sam. 18:4), but the priestly aspect is most likely in view here. In light of the judgment that was about to fall upon the priesthood, and of which Hannah was particularly keen, it seems she made it a point to designate her son as the priestly and authoritative figure of the future for Israel. Unlike Eli who had failed as a parent, Hannah took her parenting very seriously, and made sure Samuel was raised in the fear and service of God.
Samuel’s continued growth and development as God’s faithful remnant leader is affirmed in verse 26: the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the LORD and also with man. At a time when the priesthood was defiling the sacrifices of God, and was drawing the protest of the people, Samuel was gaining their favor through His faithfulness to God.
The Priest of Promise
There is a note of good news in the man of God’s message of death and judgment to Eli: God would raise up a new faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind. And I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed forever (1 Sam. 2:35). This is of course speaking immediately of Samuel, whom the text will uphold as a new light in the very next chapter. But in the big picture, this can only refer to Jesus Christ.
In the end we can view this narrative as weaving the stories of the two seeds. The wicked perverts and impotent leaders in the house of Eli were ripe for judgment, and it would come. Meanwhile, in the midst of this corrupt church and nation, little Samuel remains innocent, serves faithfully, and is supported by the actions of his mother and the words of the prophet. Foreshadowing the Christ child who “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40), Samuel was helpless on his own at this point, but was chosen and protected by God in the midst of a corrupt society, and for the purpose of exposing and rooting out that corruption. A major theme that runs throughout this book is that God’s kingdom is advanced by His work, not man’s, and that he uses the small, the weak, the remnant to accomplish His purposes over against the giants and tyrants of the world. This is clearly apparent here as God advances Samuel at a time when Samuel could have done very little on his own.
1. Perverse worship
We have said it multiple times in this series already: judgment begins at the house of God. It is here that we are most closely bound to God in covenant. It is here that God’s word confronts us most immediately. Here is the institution which is first and foremost the city on a hill for the rest of society to see God’s glory and goodness. Failure here is most painful to society. Failure here will lead to the most pervasive ripples of ungodliness throughout the rest of society. For reason of its vast social importance, failure here is met with judgment first. When the church perverts the worship of God, it can be said that its sin is very great. We can expect that God considers this sin far and beyond worse than anything the world outside the church does, including the abominations of abortion and homosexual marriage.
What is the worship of the church which we must so closely guard? It is the proclamation of the Word of God and the administration of the sacraments, which includes the ministry of church discipline. When the church neglects to preach the Word of God, it has perverted the worship of God just as Hophni and Phinehas. Too many churches neglect the Word, preferring before it the words and programs of men that are designed to sate our own lusts, and fill our own bellies with the choice cuts of religious presumption and prerogative that do not belong to us. We design a Christianity to our own liking: one that does not challenge us, but comforts us with half-truths and seeker-friendly dilutions of true religion. As we go along like this, we are doing nothing but setting ourselves up in the place of God, preferring our word to His, and playing idols just as Eli’s wicked sons.
And just as that wicked pair created such great sin in Israel merely for ignoring what seem to us to be trivial details of sacrificial law, so we must be careful to preach the full scope—every detail—of the whole counsel of God. Indeed, this is one of the greatest failures of the church today, and one for which the most disastrous results ripple throughout our land. Our churches preach only part of the Gospel. Not only do we water down the gospel for popularity purposes, even the most faithful of our churches ignore many applications of God’s word if they have overt political or economic implications. Thus, the church tolerates and even promotes government schooling, government welfare programs, deficit spending, massive debts, fiat money and manipulation of the money supply, ungodly taxations, ungodly wars of aggression, standing armies, government contracts galore including the military-industrial complex, and much more. All these things upon which the Bible has so much to say—and very little in approbation—our pulpits remain absolutely silent upon.
What is this except a failure of the churches to preach the whole counsel of God, and in the areas where it is most often needed most? What can we say, then, except that the church today is as guilty of perverting worship every bit as much as the wicked house of Eli? We need a return to preaching the whole counsel of God to every area of life. Until we repent for having failed to do so, and are restored to the boldness we need to preach comprehensive faith faithfully, any talk of revival in this land is premature and self-deluded. Judgment begins at the house of God, and we are in desperate need of the pulpit to aid us in this regard. Let us act quickly, and use those pulpits to usher in the needed repentance, before those pulpits become the object of judgment themselves.
2. Godly covenant leaders
Closely related to the need for comprehensive worship of God in every area of life is the need for godly leaders in every covenant institution in society. Yes judgment begins in the church and with the pulpit, but this must spur similar repentance and restoration in families and the civil societies, too. As such, we need godly leaders for parents, for pastors, and civil offices as well.
This means we must have people in these positions seeking God’s Word and God’s will for specific covenant applications in these areas. We need strong parents, unlike Eli, who will take care of business at home before their sons grow wicked and pervert leadership in society. We need Hannahs who keep their children outfitted for godliness and godly service. We need mothers and fathers who instruct their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, and who do not blink to correct them when needed. Instead we have millions of lazy Christians who abdicate their responsibility to the state for indoctrination in a corruptly-funded institution that teaches socialism and debauchery. We excuse our failure with the delusion that Sunday school one sleepy hour a week will insulate these helpless children from seven hours a day, five days a week of Darwin, Marx, and Rousseau, and likely a little de Sade slipped in under a different name. What is this but total failure after the example of Eli? What shall we expect in society if we cannot take godly control of our households first, but instead leave our children to the temple prostitutes of public education?
We need strong leaders as well in the pulpits, as we have already said, and we need equally strong leaders with a prophetic voice to stand up and lead in the civil arena. This must take place at all levels, beginning at the local level, proceeding through the state and continuing thoroughly at the federal level. We need leaders who are not afraid of the Word of God or of its most radical conclusions. We need sound money, and an end to subsidies and entitlements of all kinds (including private and corporate). We need a restoration of local control over criminal and civil law, reforms in foreign policy, privatization of all insurances, and a return to a biblical system of militia, for starters. This will not happen until civil leaders take their cue from the Bible first, and build their vision of a free society upon the model which God has revealed. If we say we’re the land of the free and home of the brave, then we need a vision of true freedom, and a group of truly brave leaders to articulate it. Instead, we get spineless politicians with their finger to the wind, ready to sell out every principle they say they have to the highest bidder. Like Eli, they wink at injustices committed under their watch and right under their nose. As such, God will hold them responsible for their failure in the seat of state, as if they are complicit and had committed the sins directly themselves. When that judgment comes—hopefully in the peaceful form of being voted out—we need godly and courageous leaders to be ready to take those spots.
In the end, we need faithful people above all else. Even if we are but a remnant, God will protect and prosper His kingdom because of us. Even in the midst of a decadent and rebellious society, God will use the faithful remnant, no matter how helpless, no matter how tiny, to bring about His desired ends. The text says that Eli’s sons did not listen to him because God wanted to bring judgment. How do we know God has not raised up wicked leaders in family, church, and state across the board for the sole purpose of bringing judgment upon them and cleaning house? Whatever His will, we as His remnant have the sole task of serving Him faithfully no matter what everyone else does. Clothed in the linen garments of the righteousness of Christ, and draped in the robe of authority as co-heirs and co-regents with him (Eph. 2:6–7), let us fill our roles in our covenantal institutions and perform those faithfully. For it is by the faithfulness of the remnant that God advances His kingdom in society.